What makes rugby great? Everyone will have their own answer to that question. But for me, what makes rugby great, (or at least truly unique) *is club rugby.*
Walk into any rugby club the world over and you will be welcomed with open arms, offered a drink and then finally asked if you brought your boots. In that order. Professionalism of course has brought a new dimension but these clubs are still the lifeblood of the game.
Rugby, like no other sport in the modern era, has deep roots in the amateur ethos from it emerged - particularly in Australia.
People often forget that rugby is still in its infancy as a professional sport. Our biggest rivals in the winter sporting landscape were pretty much professional from inception.
Up until 20 years ago, outside of the occasional representative fixture, it was the Sydney, Brisbane (and even Canberra) grade competitions that were the highest week to week level of rugby in the land.
Doctor, lawyer, tradesman, Wallaby or Waratah... it mattered not on the field. In Australia, this is unique.
You might grow up being a diehard Brisbane Broncos or Sydney Swans fan but know that unless you reach the elite level you are never going to play for your team.
In Rugby, especially before professionalism, but even still today, you could grow up supporting your local club and end up being the reserve tighthead prop for fourth grade. Then find yourself rubbing shoulders with a Wallaby from your club on Saturday night in the clubhouse after you have both just played your hearts out for the same jersey.
This strong connection to our clubs is a unique point of difference for our code and must not be neglected. Whilst admittedly still a fair way from the sporting mainstream, the recent resurgence of club rugby in Australia has tapped into a sense of loyalty and tribalism that Rugby at a professional level arguably lacks. Over the last couple of years, the rise in interest, crowds and sponsorships of club rugby, in particular the Shute Shield is testament to that. *One can only hope that Rugby Australia is taking note.*
The recent announcement of the 2019 Super Rugby draw caught my attention, as it is starting and finishing earlier. This creates a potential window for more professionals to appear for their clubs. It could be a major positive.
Not so long ago, when Super Rugby was not as complicated and arduous as it is now, there was still a window for club rugby. Wallabies and Super Rugby stars would turn out for their clubs and mix it with seasoned amateurs and promising youngsters.
I remember back in 2010 playing a game for Sydney Uni against Southern Districts at a packed Uni Oval where Nick Phipps and I were just about the only uncontracted players on the field.
The standard was unbelievably high and importantly the result held huge importance for two sets of loyal supporters (something which can’t always be said about Super Rugby fixtures, let alone the NRC).
Another game for me that stands out was between arch rivals the Red Heavies of UQ and Brothers in 2011, when a guy called Matt Giteau was in town looking for some match fitness to try and convince Robbie Deans to take him to the World Cup and the aptly named “Stade de Heavy” was packed with one of the largest club crowds I’ve ever seen.
Imagine the financial boost clubs could generate just if Bernard Foley and Michael Hooper turned out for Uni and Manly a couple of times a year - money that could go straight back into the “grassroots” that are so often talked about as being neglected. *Just ask the Souths Magpies in Brisbane what the presence of a world class flyhalf has done for their club!*
Rugby could leverage this point of difference and boast that it is the only code where you can go down to the local park and watch your school teacher go toe to toe with a professional.
The Wallabies will always be the pinnacle and rightly so, but we need a meaningful competition to feed into that. We all know Super Rugby in its current format is not the answer, and I’m not saying club rugby, in it’s current form at least, is necessarily the answer either.
Although if you look north to the French Top14 and English Premiership their club competitions filled with traditional teams and local rivalries seem to be doing ok.
This weekend around the country our local club competitions are edging closer to the business end of the season. Meanwhile, the annual debate around SANZAAR’s convoluted finals system and competition structure is also well underway with media pundits, coaches and players all weighing in.
The Super Rugby finals I’m sure will produce some great rugby but for many of you Australian Rugby fans that aren’t Waratahs fans, (or even if you are but you are looking to whet your Rugby appetite further than one fixture) I urge you all to get down to some local club rugby this weekend.
I guarantee you will not be disappointed by the standard or passion on display. What’s more it won’t cost you an arm and a leg and if you bring a mate along you won’t need to pull out a world map to explain to him where the teams are from!
As someone who has been fortunate enough to get a taste of pro Rugby, and is now back in the amateur game I know one thing for certain. For Rugby in Australia to thrive, we need to preserve our clubs and remember that bigger is not necessarily always better.
*Dave McDuling (@davemcduling) is a well-travelled former professional rugby player who played for the Reds, Sharks, Canterbury and the Waratahs. These days he plays for Sydney Uni in the Shute Shield whilst focusing on a career in the corporate world and studying for an MBA.*